It’s a Man’s World: Carmen at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Bizet – Carmen

Carmen – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Don José – Michael Fabiano
Micaëla – Elsa Dreisig
Escamillo – Michael Todd Simpson
Frasquita – Gabrielle Philiponet
Mercédès – Virginie Verrez
Moralès – Pierre Doyen
Le Dancaïre – Guillaume Andrieux
Remendado – Mathias Vidal
Zuniga – Christian Helmer

Maîtrise des Bouches-du-Rhône, Chœur Aedes, Orchestre de Paris / Pablo Heras-Casado.
Stage director – Dmitri Tcherniakov.

Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Monday, July 17th, 2017.

In an explanatory note in the program book, Dmitri Tcherniakov mentions how Carmen is one of the most, if not the most, popular opera in the world.  Despite its widespread popularity, Tcherniakov feels that the character of Carmen is no longer believable to a modern audience.  Consequently, he has reinvented the opera as the improvisation therapy session of a man suffering from ennui and emotional detachment.  Acting out the role of Don José is seen as a way for the man to come to terms with his emotions and to improve his relationship with his lady companion.  In doing so, Tcherniakov, hoped to distil the emotional essence of the opera into something appropriate for our times.

Photo: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

We are first introduced to Don José (the man) and Micaëla (his companion) as they enter an imposing, marble hall.  An administrator (Pierre Grammon) gets José to sign a waiver before his wallet and phone are taken away.  It’s clear from the start that Micaëla is having second thoughts and doesn’t want to leave him there, potentially having some control issues of her own.  Carmen on the other hand is a seasoned professional actress – we see her initially vamping it up in the ‘habanera’, tossing her flowing locks and flirting with the suited gentlemen of the chorus.  As the evening progresses, the Administrator refers to the events being acted out as a ‘jeu’ – for José his is playing a character, for the others it’s simply a job, a game.

Photo: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

What we get is the journey of a man from uptight, taciturn, unwilling participant to a broken shadow of himself.  This was illustrated with thrilling immediacy by Michael Fabiano’s José.  On stage throughout the three and a half hour running time, he was seen constantly watching and observing on events, giving us a performance of fearless physicality.  Yet, there was a doubt in my mind at the heart of the production concept that Tcherniakov never quite resolved.  That this is a Carmen that is less about Carmen but more about Don José – Tcherniakov removing the femme fatale from her own story.  That isn’t to say that Stéphanie d’Oustrac doesn’t make an impact in the role, on the contrary, she gives us a performance of great energy; it’s just that I never felt that I really got to know who she was.  Was she simply a jobbing actress or was there something more sinister going on, perhaps herself being held against her will?  In Act 2, Carmen says to José ‘aide-moi, je ne peux pas t’expliquer, je suis avec toi’, but we never really know what motivates her or what inspires her.  The result is that the narrative, as presented here, feels somewhat one-sided.

Photo: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

There is another subtext here that I also don’t feel especially comfortable with and that is the suggestion that in allowing himself to feel emotion, the only consequence for José is that he ends up broken.  In an age where mental health issues among men are critical, Tcherniakov’s quite dispassionate presentation of José’s breakdown feels uncomfortable, especially given Fabiano’s harrowing performance.  It feels voyeuristic, an impression reinforced by the presence of CCTV cameras around the set.

Photo: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

Certainly, as far as the personenregie was concerned, Tcherniakov created vivid characters from every single member of the cast.  The 32 members of the Chœur Aedes gave a thoroughly lived-in performance – every single member becoming a distinct personality.  They sang with youthful, vibrant tone – the sopranos opening up nicely at the top and the tart mezzos adding spice to the texture.  The gentlemen were especially active physically, moving around in formation.  The downside was that at times, they were lost in the balance when Tcherniakov had them singing from the back of the set.

Photo: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

There was some early controversy after the premiere since Tcherniakov had re-written the dialogues.  However, the history of Carmen is littered with changes such as this – for example it was performed for many years with recitatives by Guiraud replacing the spoken dialogues.  There were some pacing issues in the delivery though – quite a few meaningful pauses – and these issues were echoed somewhat in Pablo Heras-Casado’s conducting.  This was more Carmen as grand opera than opéra comique.  He brought out a romantic luxuriousness in the textures with tempi that were on occasion perhaps too languorous.  He certainly made much of the orchestration – the interplay between the winds in the flower song was ravishing.  At times, he also highlighted a rhythmic incisiveness that was captivating – the habanera had genuine swing and the ‘chanson bohème’ gave us five minutes of mesmerizing accelerando.  The orchestra played very well for him (a few brass accidents here and there notwithstanding).  Tuning in the strings was spot on all night.

Photo: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

Fabiano gave us some thrilling, visceral and full throttled singing, as fearless vocally as he was physically. He wasn’t just about the volume, however, giving us a beautifully sustained high B-flat in the ‘flower song’ in a ravishing voix mixte.  The intonation issues I have noticed in his singing before were still there – in the first two acts he was frequently flat when singing above forte at the top of the voice.  However, as the evening developed, he found the sweet spot for the placement of the voice and it took on a striking resonance and clarity.  His diction was absolutely superb.  Tonight, Fabiano gave us a total performance of commanding power.

Photo: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

D’Oustrac’s is a Carmen of silky voluptuousness with a brassy edge.  It’s an attractive instrument and everything she did was sung off the text.  Her Carmen was sung with oozing sultriness and she is also very competent on the castanets.  She gave us some tasteful dips into the chest register but I did wish she would exploit it a bit more, especially in the card scene.  Her final scene was riveting, as if finally throwing off the shackles of the staging and giving us some uninhibited descents through the registers.

Photo: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

The remainder of the cast reflected the very high standards of the festival.  Elsa Dreisig was a lovely Micaëla with a voice of unblemished purity, flawless diction and a pearly top.  If her aria appears to take her to her current limits (betrayed by some tightness higher up), she is most definitely a singer to watch.  Michael Todd Simpson was a soft-grained and copper-toned Escamillo, stretched somewhat by the higher reaches of the tessitura but an imposing stage presence nonetheless.  The supporting roles were very well taken – Virgine Verrez’s Mercédès suggesting she may well become an excellent Carmen herself and Pierre Doyen was a handsome voiced Moralès.

Photo: © Patrick Berger / artcompress

Tonight was certainly unlike any Carmen we might have seen before.  It was very well sung by the principals, supporting cast and chorus (with a special mention for the delightfully raucous children’s chorus).  Did Tcherniakov’s take on Carmen inspire those emotions in its spectators that are at the core of the work?  I’m not completely convinced that it did mainly because it becomes less ‘her’ story and more ‘his’ story.  At the end we see José completely broken on the floor.  And yet for everyone else it was just a game, a job like any other.  Perhaps that is ultimately the point, Tcherniakov is perhaps saying that society looks down on men who want to reveal their emotions – it taunts them, provokes them.  It was, however, a gripping evening in the theatre.  One felt compelled to watch the fearless performances of the cast and the constant suspense and need to know what happens next was riveting.  It was received with an enormous and warm ovation by the public.

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  1. Thank you for this review. I was confused by other reviews, I couldn’t understand what this was about. I really enjoyed your take, your interpretation. I still don’t think I would have enjoyed the production, but at least now I know why!

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